Monday, March 5, 2018

Steven Pinker's Enlightenment

Happily, Steven Pinker’s opus on the enlightenment has elicited some intelligent and serious responses. Reading these—as a substitute for reading the hulking book—helps us to gain a better view of Western intellectual history. You might think this to be tedious. I don’t. So, humor me.

Intellectual historian Nick Spencer has reviewed the book for the think tank called Theos. You can guess its emphasis from its title. He observes that Pinker makes a cogent argument that many of life’s conditions are getting better. And yet, Spencer argues effectively, Pinker’s view of the Enlightenment and intellectual history is seriously distorted and largely mythicized.

A word about what Spencer finds persuasive:

On the basis that our answer to the question of progress should be determined by counting, Pinker presents graphs on life expectancy, child mortality, maternal mortality, infectious diseases, calorie intake, food availability, wealth, poverty, extreme poverty, deforestation, oil spills, protected areas, war, violence, homicides, battle deaths, famine deaths, pedestrian deaths, plane crash deaths, occupational accident deaths, natural disaster deaths, deaths by lightning, human rights, state executions, racism, sexism, homophobia, hate crimes, violence against women, liberal values, child labour, literacy, education, IQ, hours worked, years in retirement, utilities and homework, the price of light, disposable spending, leisure time, travel, tourism… and much else besides.

If we do not see all the progress around us, the reasons are many. Apparently, we prefer tragedy to comedy, stories of decline to stories of progress. On this point, Pinker is not especially persuasive. Most people are optimistic—why else would they buy so many lottery tickets?—and they understand that he to whom much has been given must take care lest it be taken away. Failing to be a Pinkerist wide-eyed optimist bespeaks rational thought. Pinker should have seen it.

Since Pinker sees the Enlightenment as something of a Savior, he conflates the different Enlightenments. Everyone knows, as I have reported here, that there are at least two Enlightenments. Spencer sees others:

There is little sense of whether he means the British, French or American forms of the Enlightenment, as Gertrude Himmelfarb termed them.Or whether he means the radical or moderate Enlightenment, as Jonathan Israel has distinguished them. Or whether something as arcane as the Catholic Enlightenment could be included under the rubric.

This isn’t nit–picking. The Enlightenment wasn’t one single thing, or even one clearly delimited period, and its thinkers did not all want the same thing, in the same way, for the same reasons. Moreover, Pinker’s vagueness about the Enlightenment is not simply a cause of his brevity. He is also ahistorical and at times verges on caricature.

Pinker credits the Enlightenment with everything good that has happened in the West. And he denounces the counter Enlightenment for everything bad. Obviously this is simple minded. Pinker is selling a polemic, not doing historical analysis.

Spencer tells what Pinker considers the fruits of the Enlightenment:

The brainchildren of the Enlightenment, we are told, included “free speech, nonviolence, cooperation, cosmopolitanism, human rights, and an acknowledgement of human fallibility, and among [its] institutions are science, education, media, democratic government”. Peace was “another Enlightenment ideal”. So was “mutually beneficial co–operation [and] voluntary exchange”. “The institutions of modernity” include “schools, hospitals, charities [and] international organisations”. The Enlightenment “imagined humanity could makes intellectual and moral progress”.

He proceeds to debunk the idea that all of these originated with the Enlightenment. They began well before it. Many of them had been the work of religious thinkers and institutions:

The idea that human co–operation, natural rights, or international peace were undreamt of before 1750 is not tenable. Schools, hospitals and charities are hardly “institutions of modernity”. The very idea of progress is dependent on the linear idea of history that Christianity bequeathed to the West, as John Gray, Pinker’s arch progressophobe has long noted, even if Enlightenment thinkers were much more positive about it as a secular (meaning temporal, and sometimes irreligious) goal. As David Wootton said of Enlightenment Now in his review in the TLS , “The only major claim not supported by a graph (or indeed much evidence of any kind) is the assertion that all this progress has something to do with the Enlightenment.” Pinker seems wedded to the Enlightenment like some of kind secular creation myth, and this results in to two particular problems with the book.

Take the example of racism, Spencer says. It was supported by Enlightenment thinkers and was denounced by religious thinkers. He explains:

 Lest we forget, the late 18th century was the time par excellence for slave trading, a commerce that was finally abolished due to the efforts of Quakers and Evangelicals rather more than Enlightenment  philosophes and deists. Pinker rightly cavils at the idea that 19th century science was intrinsically racist, or that it wasn’t coloured by the racist cultures of the time. But 19th century science did not dismantle the racist cultures in which it found itself, and sometimes spent considerable time and energy fortifying them. 

And also:

When Gregory of Nyssa fulminated against the institution of slavery itself, in the fourth century, denouncing Christians for daring to imagine they could own another human being, he was indeed a voice crying in the wilderness. A millennium later, most of Western Europe was crying with him.

The great advance in Western civilization came about in what Daniel Acemoglu and James Robinson, in their book Why Nations Fail?  called inclusive institutions, institutions in which individuals could participate freely, rather than extractive institutions where all authority lay in the hands of a leadership class.

Inclusive institutions, both political and economic, “allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in [political and] economic activities that make best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish”. Extractive ones do pretty much the opposite….

“in 18th century England this cronyism gave way to open economies in which anyone could sell anything to anyone, and their transactions were protected by the rule of law, property rights, enforceable contracts, and institutions like banks, corporations, and government agencies that run by fiduciary duties rather than personal connections.”

Rather than crediting the development of inclusive institutions to Immanuel Kant, we do better to note Martin Luther’s reformation of Christianity. And the British Common Law, a medieval practice, decentralized authority and defined the concept of legal precedent, not of kingly or bureaucratic diktat.

As for the Scientific Revolution its impetus largely predated the Enlightenment. Spencer writes:

The justification for what was to become the Scientific Revolution was articulated some time before the Enlightenment, primarily by Francis Bacon in the early 17th century. Moreover, the reason why yet another small scale scientific revolution (there had been similar scientific proto–revolutions in ancient Greece, Rome, and China, and in early mediaeval Baghdad and later mediaeval Paris and Oxford) became The Scientific Revolution can be traced to persistently theological reasoning, as has been carefully charted by Peter Harrison.

The point, to be concise, is that science and religion are not mortal enemies, but can and should complement each other. It was not an accident that the Scientific Revolution occurred in cultures that were founded on Biblical teaching.


Shaun F said...

I do agree science and religion work best together. I am always skeptical of metrics for studies every since my boss told me to "Hire the right consultant for the study." years ago. However…..society is collapsing. From my perspective. Chaos in more rampant than Order at the ground level. But I do take the bus, and work at fairly low level service jobs - soup kitchens, dubious thrift stores, and a job that lets me see a cross reference of people from all across the country and different ages. I see more people medicated and basically lost, searching for Pavlovian validation. The family unit has pretty much been destroyed and I see the fallout of fatherless families. I understand how some technology has made things easier, but that is just a move towards automation - which is pretty soul destroying. And to live longer, medicated watching TV - well is that life? I don't know. When they have flying cars available to the general public (not saying UFOs aren't flying cars that weren't mass produced) and a scientist designs a machine that can turn a dog into a human being, I will say we have moved forward scientifically. I'm not saying things like hip and knee replacement surgery isn't beneficial. However, the social engineering for fitness that created this epidemic (back in 1976 specifically - named the Participaction Program) was largely responsible for the creation of hip and knee replacements to begin with. Anyway, I get some innovation have made things better. Although 300 dollar Nespresso maker makes a good cup of coffee, I still use my stove top moka pot. Maybe I'm just in with the out crowd. .

Anonymous said...

The phrase "shopping gulag" struck a little closer to home than I might have liked.

It's still a bit of a "memento mori" for me.

Humans are teleological.
Robots and AI are not our teleological end state.
At least not in a positive way.


David Foster said...

Shaun F...."automation - which is pretty soul destroying"

Not so sure about that. Weren't the vast number of clerical jobs which were required in the pre-computer age (to do things like billing and payroll calculations, for example) at least equally soul-destroying? How about cotton picking by hand versus by machine? (the former being certainly back-destroying, whether or not soul-destroying!)

Shaun F said...

David - I agree with your first statement - having been in the job market before the computer age.

With regards to "cotton picking" with a machine I thought that was covered with my bit about innovation.

I do know in India they consume a bit of opium when working the rice fields, and in the West Indies...working the sugar fields....well...everyone is pretty high.

Jack Fisher said...

David, that depends on whether you see work as self-fulfilment or a way to pay the bills so you can live life in other ways.

Ares Olympus said...

Spencer's criticism sounds fair and challenging to Pinker.

Stuart says "Most people are optimistic", but I wonder what that means. They say Humans have a "negativity bias" since we put more attention into threats than things that don't threaten us. Buying lottery tickets might be a sign of optimism, but most people only put a tiny fraction of their money into the lottery, so maybe most us are willing to gamble a small loss for a large gain. But maybe that also shows our weakness - the slippery slope of small gambles that slowly grow, like interest on your debts.

And that's my problem with Pinker's optimism. You want "realism" that accepts the we're digging lots of deep holes that no one believes we're going to fill again. So economic growth is now our modern God we worship, because it enables us to avoid being responsible for our present consumption levels.

Or like the quote by James R. Schlesinger "We have only two modes - complacency and panic." So what we call "optimism" is complacency, and what we call "pessimism" is panic. Pinker's Enlightenment doesn't tell us how exponential growth continues forever, nor how to manage a civilization when one-time resource productions fail to keep up with demands. Reason should have told us to limit our appetites long ago, but power corrupts, so here we are, heading towards a cliff believing the singularity might still save us.